4 Lessons The Classroom Can Learn From The Design Studio

Designers collaborate across disciplines, give and take constructive criticism, and embrace failure in the process of solving problems. Wouldn't children benefit from developing the same skills in school.

Earlier this year, we peered into the work spaces of some of the most inspiring companies working in the creative economy to glean design ideas for learning spaces. Instead of the tyranny of cubes and boardrooms, we found spaces for serious play, dynamic cross-pollination, and cultivated serendipity. It was easy to find inspiration from the Googles, Pixars, and IDEOs of the world; the grass is always greener. But as architects and designers, we need only to glance at our own proverbial backyard for further inspiration.

In his interview with the Carnegie Foundation, John Seely Brown, scholar and co-author of A New Culture of Learning, suggests that we look for education lessons in the architectural studio. In answer to the question of what could we do better in schools today, especially given the rapid pace of change, Brown responds by saying he’s intrigued by the architectural studio. "All work in progress is made public . . . One of the things you learn in an architectural studio. . . is to accept critique [from your peers, from the master] . . . accept that, to appreciate that, and to learn from that. And that is one of the key platforms that you want for lifelong learning.”

So let’s examine the architectural studio--where we design the places in which we learn, live, heal, and work--to find out what the classroom can learn from these creative environments.


From the everyday “Hey, can you take a look at this?” to the masters’ critique, learning in a studio is constant and multidirectional, formal and informal. Collaboration means communicating concepts, critiques, and questions for the betterment of the individual designer and the entire team. Studio surfaces are notoriously littered with inspirations, precedents, concepts, and drafts. In the studio, the process--not just the product--takes center stage.

Classrooms, in contrast, typically only display completed assignments like final book reports and dioramas; seldom is the evolution of a concept evident. Implicitly, young learners are told that the final outcome--not the project’s development--is most important. We are encouraged by school cultures and spaces that attempt to turn this on its head. The Blue School(started by the Blue Man Group) follows a constructivist methodology. On a recent tour, we saw a hallway project that transformed the squiggle into a vibrant mural by 3-year-old students (bonus points for the UV lights that illuminated it). This simple activity, doodling, was deconstructed, studied, and rebuilt. The evidence of this early childhood exploration convinced us that the school was cultivating young learners and designers, not just test takers.

A culture of healthy critique, full of mature and multidirectional insights, inspires confident, analytical learners. Let’s cultivate a critical eye and language for constructive criticism in young students. They are, after all, our future designers, scientists, and businesspeople.


Image: Associated Press


In the words of the organizational theorist Donald Schön, “Architecture lives both in the world of art and the world of technological performance.” Architecture can be viewed as the process of building structures around our social needs and values. A successful structure deftly balances the beauty of form and structure, the engineering of sustainability, the social politics of community, and the business of building. As such, interdisciplinary problem solving is fundamental to the high-stakes architectural design process.

This complex interplay means the studio must facilitate interdisciplinary cross-collaboration, a hallmark of project-based learning. Designers are problem-solvers and critical thinkers who find solutions through form. It shouldn’t be surprising that some of the people working to solve our biggest problems trained or aspired to be architects.

Studio H in Bertie County, North Carolina, understands the importance of fostering this style of complex problem solving in the classroom. This public high school’s battle cry--design, build, transform--not only helps remediate the basic math and engineering skills of high school students but spurscommunity development in their rural community. The skills and social lessons learned in the design-build process are ingrained in students and empower even those not destined for a career in the studio.


A culture of critical collaboration reframes the concept of failure. In the design studio, mini “failures” are endemic--but they are known by less pejorative names: prototyping, modeling, tinkering, discovery. The real secret of design is that (shh!) we never get it right the first time. The road to the answer you intend to implement is laden with schemes tried, and tossed aside, in an attempt to discover a better solution. Solutions are continuously revisited and improved until it’s time to actually build something.

One problem with general education is that students are too often given assignments or projects that experience only one iteration. Our design practice thrives on making concepts tangible so that they can be rigorously studied, critiqued, and tweaked. Much of this tradition of critique comes from modern architecture’s origins in apprenticeship (before the advent of formal training in the 19th century). This has created a studio environment in which there is constant feedback and a necessary balance between formal learning and learning by doing.

The burgeoning trend in design-thinking education is embracing the F-word. One organization that embodies this empowering education model is Public Workshop. This June, we saw a group of Chicago Architecture Foundation “teen design heroes” work with Public Workshop to take over Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin and reclaim failure as a heroic feat. Described as a “summer design camp on steroids” and “a ‘doing’ boot-camp,” it challenged teenage designers to design and build a sensitive, functional structure in only five days. Chicago Public high-schoolers, typically bound by the formal pressures of “making the grade,” used large-scale rapid prototyping, exploration, and thoughtfully led play (mapping capture the flag, anyone?) to discover their design problem and reveal their solution. It was this freedom to test and scrap ideas that paved their path to a final product and empowered a new perspective on learning. In the words of a young designer, Jeisson Apolo: “Prepare yourself to build, tear down, build, tear down, and build again so that finally you can have what you may call your first draft. Sound tough? You’re telling me! Thankfully, while it is challenging, it’s also one of the best experiences I’ve ever had.”


Image: Katie Koch


Just as the educational technology discussion heats up with compelling challenges and defenses, the architecture world has gone through its share of high-tech growing pains. But even as computer modeling evolves to support incredible feats of engineering and sustainability, the analog tools of the practice--the pencil, pen, trace paper, cardboard, glue, Exacto knives--are irreplaceable. Not just romantic, these tools of conceptualization, communication, and critique are integral to how a designer works through ideas individually and in groups.

The educational dialogue surrounding technology is often oversimplified. Digital solutions are frequently seen as a silver bullet for education challenges. But the true art of design (and teaching today) is the thoughtful balance between the digital and analog. An interactive whiteboard might as well be a regular whiteboard unless the mode of interaction is fundamentally rethought. The journey to that fancy iPad app senior project was probably paved in notebook sketches and sticky-note mind maps.


Design is a beautiful collection of tensions. There is a constant pull between thinking and doing, the collective and individual, digital and analog, problems and solutions, artistry and engineering. At the heart of this lies creativity. The same is true in teaching and learning. It takes a teacher both artistic and exacting to navigate a diverse group of young minds through an “aha” breakthrough. It seems our policies and structures are forgetting that.

Perhaps the lexicon of education is broken. While the traditional construct of “classroom” may limit how we interact within our spaces, the labels of “teachers” and “students” (not to mention the conflation of authentic learning) may paralyze our progress as well. What would happen if classrooms operated more like studios? What if teachers were empowered to collaborate with one another as designers? Maybe teaching (and architecture) would then move closer to its role in effecting social change. On IDEO’s new site Design Thinking for Educators, Karen Fierst, an educator, reflects on this power: “If teachers viewed themselves as designers, if teachers believed that they could effect change–if they really believed in themselves–I think a much better system is possible.”

As designers, we believe that a much better education system is possible. And we think the inherently collaborative, critical, and empowering characteristics of the design professions offer lessons for this change. While we can help rethink the physical spaces of classrooms and campuses--infusing them with a studio ethic--the real change will happen when we rethink the system itself.

Co-authored with Steve Turckes, Perkins+Will. Originally posted in Fast Co Design in 2011.